School Safety Measures May Not Prevent Mass Shootings

Beside pencil sharpeners and calendars documenting field trips and birthdays in classrooms throughout Minnesota’s Lakeville Area Schools, there are now big blue boxes with a red button and the word “POLICE.” The button sends a text message to emergency dispatchers, alerts the rest of the school to potential danger, and activates 1,200 pounds of magnetic force to keep the class door shut.

It’s one of the measures that Michael Baumann has implemented to protect against school shootings since he became superintendent of the district 20 miles south of Minneapolis in 2017.

He hired four more counselors to improve access to mental health services, established a team to monitor potential threats of violence, and rolled out measures “hardening” schools in the district. A company was hired to put up an emergency-alert system, and to build protective panels for ballistic students. These steps were designed to help teachers and students survive active shooter situations.

“Everybody goes to bed and thinks ‘That’ll never happen in my school district.’ Well, I can tell you as a superintendent, that’s the nightmare. That’s what keeps you up at night,” says Baumann, who served in the Army for 20 years, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, before working in education. “I felt like it was my obligation to do what I could.”

One hundred and fifty-seven students from a suburban area spent $14.4 million to secure their school. Voters approved a 2019 measure that allocated $4.27 million annually to the school to hire an additional school resource officer as well as a school psychologist to assist with responding to any potential threats.

A Minnesota classroom with a emergency button can be used to send an emergency message to the emergency dispatchers.

Courtesy Lakeville Area Schools

While the approaches vary in different schools across the country, school security is a growing industry due to fear of school shootings. According to Omdia, the market for security products and services in schools reached $2.7 Billion in 2017. It was just before the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school in Parkland, Fla. that increased security at schools.

After the mass shooting that occurred at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde on May 24, Texas, there has been renewed debate about safety measures for schools. And many Republicans, after indicating that they’re not willing to support gun-safety legislation, have argued instead that heightened physical security measures, often called “school hardening,” are necessary to prevent future attacks.

“Harden schools. There should be one entrance in and one entrance out,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick spoke on Fox News May 26. “The most effective tool for keeping kids safe is armed law enforcement on the campus,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said on May 24.

Former President Donald Trump—who established a federal commission on gun safety after the Parkland shooting that largely avoided discussing guns and suggested that schools consider increasing security measures like steel doors with bullet-resistant windows—returned to the topic when he addressed the annual convention of the National Rifle Association in Houston days after the Uvalde shooting.

“Every building should have a single point of entry. There should be strong exterior fencing, metal detectors, and the use of new technology to make sure that no unauthorized individual can ever enter the school with a weapon,” he said.

But experts say it’s not clear that such measures actually make schools safer. Research has found that both students and teachers fear schools with more visible security features. For example, a 2013 study found that students felt less safe when metal detectors were installed in schools. A 2018 study found that greater use of security cameras inside a school was linked to lower perceptions of safety, equity, and support among students, concluding that cameras “may evoke feelings of being viewed as potential perpetrators who need surveillance.”

In addition, there isn’t clear evidence that school resource officers (SROs) improve safety. Although SROs had been present in Uvalde before gunmen attacked the schools, they failed to prevent the shootings. Racial justice advocates warn that the increasing presence of armed officers at schools will lead to an increase in the school-to jail pipeline for students from color. This could also impact their education. A 2009 study found that schools with an SRO had fewer arrests for weapons or assault charges, but had more student arrests for disorderly conduct, “consistent with the belief that SROs contribute to criminalizing student behavior.”

“There isn’t much evidence suggesting that the type of security procedures that are being put into place have much of an impact in keeping kids safe,” says Bryan Warnick, an education professor at Ohio State University who has studied school discipline and school shootings.

“But when we start to layer one security procedure on top of another, when we add metal detectors, surveillance cameras, increased police presence, active-shooter drills, and we turn schools into this mix of fortresses and prisons—it can have some negative impacts,” Warnick says.

Ron Avi Astor (a professor of sociology and an expert in school violence at University of California, Los Angeles) is one of eight researchers that recently released a plan to prevent school shootings. This plan includes making schools safer from bullying and harassment as well improving mental healthcare services and restricting firearms availability across the country. The group’s gun-safety recommendations include a ban on assault-style weapons, background checks on all gun purchases and laws that allow for the removal of firearms “when there is a clear threat of lethal violence.”

“If we want to prevent school shootings, in particular, you have to address the gun issue,” Astor says. “There’s just no way around it.”

The group argues that “school hardening” policies should be avoided “because these strategies carry substantial risk for negative outcomes,” arguing that the presence of additional law enforcement officers and increased security measures can undermine student learning and well-being.

The researchers recommended programs to promote emotional learning, to support student dealing with their negative emotions and encourage teacher-student relationships. This has been proven to reduce bullying and other behavioral issues. “Although security measures are important, a focus on simply preparing for shootings is insufficient,” the group wrote. “Prevention entails more than security measures and begins long before a gunman comes to school.”

A recurring debate

Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty in 2018 to the murder of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Doug High School. Jury selection is currently being held for his sentencing trial. Defense attorneys requested that jury selection be put on hold due to the “wave of emotion” surrounding the Uvalde shooting, arguing it threatens Cruz’s right to a fair trial because the shooting “opened old wounds” for the community in Broward County, Florida, where the trial is taking place. It will be decided by the jurors whether Cruz should go to execution.

The debate about school toughening mirrors what happened after the Parkland massacre in Florida, 2018. This led to increased security calls and suggestions for arming teachers.

Texas gave $100 million to schools in response to the Sante Fe High School shootings of 2018. In January 2020, $69,000 was awarded to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent Schools District. Tribune reported. But that didn’t stop a gunman from entering Robb Elementary and killing 19 children and two teachers.

And the Uvalde shooting is the latest tragedy to contradict the idea that “good guys with guns” stop mass shootings. Although police arrived at the school shortly after the shooting, it took them more than an hour for entry to the areas where the shooter was hiding.

Still, school resource officers have been a growing presence in schools over the last two decades—in part as a response to the frequency of school shootings. According to the National Center for Education Statistics data, 51% of all public schools had a sworn officer of law enforcement on their campuses during 2017-18, an increase of 36% from 2005-06 when only 36% were present.

An officer from Fullerton Police Department stands in front of Richman Elementary school, Fullerton (Calif.) on May 25, 2022.

Paul Bersebach—MediaNews Group/Orange County Register/Getty Images

Texas governor. Greg Abbott sent a letter to the Texas Education Agency that put the onus on educators, asking the agency to create additional rules ensuring schools are “held to heightened safety standards.” Abbott instructed districts to conduct weekly door inspections, ordered administrators to identify actions they can take to make campuses more secure before the new school year, and encouraged schools to increase the presence of law enforcement officers on campus.

It’s a sign that, just as the Parkland shooting drove demand for school security enhancements, the Uvalde shooting could have the same effect. The Senate is supporting a new proposal for gun safety that includes funding in school safety, violence prevention, training, and student and staff training.

“A lot of districts are calling us now,” says Jason Polinski, co-founder of 3D Response Systems, the Minnesota-based company that recently installed the security measures in Lakeville Area Schools.

Polinski, who thinks focusing on gun-safety legislation is “not productive in any way shape or form,” argues the physical security measures are worth trying to give students and teachers more tools to survive in the event of a shooting. “I think it’s possible to harden schools to minimize the loss of life,” he says.

Baumann knows that the ballistic panels and emergency buttons in his schools won’t prevent a shooting. Baumann hopes these devices will be able to limit casualties if other preventative measures don’t work. “When somebody’s decided they’re going to shoot up a school, how are you protected against that threat?” he says. “If you’re in that situation, all other things have failed.”

His goal was to provide a simple strategy for staff and students that could be followed even in stressful situations like active shooter. And he says he took pains to make sure those additions didn’t drastically alter the school’s appearance or hinder the learning environment. “You would never know they’re there,” he says.

As districts like Baumann’s work to fortify schools, some worry that hardening schools ultimately makes educators responsible for finding complex, expensive solutions to the country’s broader gun violence epidemic.

“We burden students with this fear and anxiety of having all these security procedures. Sometimes, we ask teachers to have guns so they can serve in the war zone. We asked schools to turn themselves upside down with trainings and new procedures,” Warnick, the Ohio State researcher, says.

“And all of this is because we lack the courage and strength to make the changes that will really matter. It’s a larger societal problem of easy access to firearms, of lack of access to mental health care.”

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